When the history of ecclesiastical architecture is written, it is doubtful it will be very kind to the last half of the 20th century.
In fact, as a Catholic architect, I predict that the previous half-century will be seen as an architectural dark age — and the 21st century as a renaissance. And, just as previous renaissances have gotten sustenance from the architecture of the past, so it must be today.
We are witnessing a growing appreciation for the art and architecture of historic churches and a desire, to preserve them from the liturgists wrecking ball. Another evidence of this rebirth is the fact that, when parishes go to build today, the most common request I hear is that it “look like a church” — which I take to mean having a sense of transcendence, time-honored forms and traditional iconography.
Foremost among those who deserve credit for fostering the new renaissance in sacred architecture as well as the burgeoning Catholic-preservation movement is critic and author Michael Rose. His latest work, Ugly as Sin: Why They Changed Our Churches from Sacred Places to Meeting Spaces — and How We Can Change Them Back Again (Sophia, 2001) is a book that I predict will become the standard text for architects and parishes charged with building new churches. In this passionate and well-illustrated tome, Rose answers the central questions: “Why is church architecture important?” and “What makes a good church?”
Not since J.B. O'Connell's Church Building and Furnishing of 1955 has there been such a complete work on the history, theology and practical aspects of designing the house of God. Ugly as Sin is rich in theological allusion, biblical meaning and church teaching as they affect the architecture of the Church. Accompanying a plethora of images of beautiful and ugly churches is Rose's enjoyable, witty and readable text. Ugly as Sin is happily absent of architectural semantics or liturgi-speak, while being thorough enough to be helpful to both architects and building committees. In fact, if there is any book that a pastor or building committee should read before embarking on a building project, it is Ugly as Sin.
Rose, who was trained as an architect, articulates three principles, or “natural laws,” that must guide church architecture: permanence, verticality, and iconographic content. He believes it is necessary to recover these principles if our churches are to inspire man to worship God and to teach future generations about the faith. In order to enflesh his thesis, Rose takes the reader on visits to a traditional church (or “house of the Lord”) and a modernist church (or “worship space”). This is a brilliant and amusing way for the reader to compare how one experiences various church designs.
“The church building, reflecting the Church herself,” he writes, “should assist us in this eternal pilgrimage by drawing us near, serving as our maternal sanctuary, facilitating the Church's Liturgy, and memorializing the Holy Sacrifice on Calvary.” In these visits to a traditional type and a modernist anti-type, Rose describes the design of the architecture and the sacramental elements with an analysis of theological ramifications. Of particular note is his emphasis on the facade as “face” of the church, the nave as focused on the sanctuary, the use of colonnades or arcades which help create a sense of good proportion, and the choir loft as a legitimate development of the musical tradition.
Many readers will enjoy his treatment of sacred art, which Rose sees as conveying historical, symbolic or allegorical meaning. “In a church, the purpose of beauty is to make the truths represented attractive to the senses,” he writes. One of the aspects in most need of recovery in our modern churches is the design of the sanctuary, which has been abysmal in the past four decades. The sanctuary should reflect the hierarchy of the Body of Christ by the use of fine materials, height, the triumphal arch, an altar rail and, most especially, the altar and baldacchino. The design and central placement of the tabernacle, described by Rose as the “beating heart” of the house of God, should remind us that Christ is truly present in all of our churches.
Ugly as Sin critiques much of what passes today for contemporary wisdom about sacred architecture, including such sacred cows as gathering spaces, immersion fonts, the fan shape, the choir stage and tacky tabernacles. One humorous segment describes the “hunt for the eucharistic chapel,” in which the pilgrim goes down a long corridor past bathrooms and the water fountain before he can find the Blessed Sacrament.
Rose's description of abstract worship spaces and emaciated art as essentially iconoclastic will ring true for many readers. The photos he includes should not be construed as Catholic churches merely done in a modern style, but rather as inversions of sacramental architecture. By including photos of both early and late 20th-century parish churches, Rose makes the point on how far church architecture has fallen in the last 50 years. Even those who do not agree with Rose's critique of modern architecture and liturgy have to admit that there is little to love in most modern churches.
While critical of recent trends in liturgical design, Ugly as Sin is optimistic about the future, and Rose ends with practical recommendations for making our churches Catholic again. He cites examples of churches that are being re-renovated, such as the chapel at Notre Dame College in Baltimore, as well as functionalist designs which are being transformed with sacred art and decoration, such as St. Aloysius church in New Canaan, Connecticut.
Finally, Ugly as Sin highlights a number of new traditional churches by architects who have embraced sacred tradition and sought to work in continuity with it. These include St. Agnes in New York, Immaculate Conception in New Jersey, Our Lady of the Angels Monastery in Alabama, Our Lady of Guadalupe Seminary in Nebraska and San Juan Capistrano in California. This burgeoning movement of new sacred architecture is growing exponentially, as recently witnessed by the popularity of the catalog, “Reconquering Sacred Space,” which accompanied an exhibition of new classical churches last year in Rome. Michael Rose's new book Ugly as Sin gives direction and theological grounding for this renaissance of beauty in service of the Most High.
“In the twenty-first century,” writes Rose, “if Catholics are willing to admit that the experiments of the twentieth century are failures, and if they're motivated to correct the situation, a renaissance of sacred architecture will take hold whereby we'll see the great treasures of the past returned to their original splendor and the establishment of new houses of God that are transcendent, enduring, and serve as vessels of meaning for generations of Christians to come.”
This book can help bring such a hopeful scenario about.
Duncan Stroik teaches architecture at the University of Notre Dame and is editor of Sacred Architecture.